Until western consumers make safety standards an issue for the big clothing brands, factory fires will continue to take lives
The fire that killed 112 workers in a factory producing for Walmart, Sears, Disney and other apparel corporations was the deadliest in the history of Bangladesh, but it was one in a long series of such fires and it will not be the last. The economic logic of the apparel industry, driven by the insatiable hunger of western apparel companies for cheap clothes, guarantees that many more workers will die.
In the last two years, fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan have taken the lives of nearly 500 apparel workers, at plants producing for Gap, H&M, JC Penney, Target, Abercrombie & Fitch, the German retailer KiK and many others.
These deaths are preventable. In the wake of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which killed 146 workers in Manhattan in 1911, a labor reform movement transformed the sweatshop-dominated US apparel industry into one defined by safe workplaces, middle-class wages and strong unions. The industry has known for more than 100 years how to operate an apparel factory safely, yet today these lessons are routinely ignored.
The key to understanding why apparel workers’ lives are treated so cavalierly today is to ask why corporations are flocking to countries like Bangladesh in the first place. Bangladesh is now the world’s second-largest apparel producer. It did not attain that status by achieving high levels of productivity, or a strong transportation infrastructure; it got there by being the rock-bottom cheapest place to make clothing.
This derives from three factors: the industry’s lowest wages (a minimum apparel wage of 18 cents an hour), ruthless suppression of unions, and a breathtaking disregard for worker safety. The industry in Bangladesh has been handsomely rewarded for its costcutting achievements, with an ever-rising flood of business from western brands, moderated only by the global recession. And local factory owners understand that if they do not continue to offer the lowest possible prices, those brands will be quick to leave.
Leading apparel companies have accomplished a form of time travel: they have recreated 1911 working conditions in 2012. Unconstrained by regulation, apparel producers in 1911 New York did not waste money on niceties like workplace safety. Neither do their counterparts today in South Asia. By outsourcing their production, US corporations have escaped the regulatory strictures won by unions and labor rights advocates after the Triangle fire and have turned back the clock on a century of workplace reform.
As news emerged of the horror at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh, the brands and retailers producing at the facility predictably sought to distance themselves. Unable to deny their relationship to the factory – because of photographs taken by courageous local activists that proved their garments were found inside the building – Walmart and Sears resorted to the claim that their clothes were being made there without their knowledge. They put the blame on local contractors who purportedly subcontracted their orders to Tazreen against the companies’ wishes.
Walmart, a company whose foundational corporate principle is cost reduction through micromanagement of the supply chain, was reduced to asserting that it has so little control of its supply chain that it doesn’t know which factories in Bangladesh are making its clothes. The brands and retailers also insisted that the unsafe conditions that killed the workers at Tazreen Fashion existed despite their ostensibly robust efforts to ensure safe and responsible labor practices by their suppliers. Walmart touts its “work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh.”
Indeed, virtually every major apparel company claims to be policing its suppliers’ labor practices through aggressive inspections. Yet every one of the factories where fires killed workers in Bangladesh and Pakistan in the last two years had been subject to numerous such inspections. The factory where 289 workers were killed in Pakistan this September had received, just weeks before the fire, a clean bill of health under an inspection system called SA-8000. A plant in Bangladesh that burned in 2010 had been inspected by Gap and other customers, but those companies failed to correct the safety hazards that eventually killed 29 workers. The Tazreen factory was an obvious fire trap, yet none of the audits conducted by Walmart (pdf) and other buyers brought about any apparent change.
All the companies concerned publish official policy statements on these issues – Walmart, Gap, Sears, Disney, Target, Abercrombie & Fitch, H&M, JC Penney, and KiK (pdf) – but the problem is straightforward: it costs more to produce under good working conditions than bad. While brands and retailers claim to be concerned about protecting the rights and safety of the workers who make their clothes, they demand prices from their suppliers that virtually guarantee that those goals will be ignored. Josh Green, chief executive of Panjiva, a leading supplier of supply chain data to the apparel industry, recently described the “relentless pressure” that these companies “put on their suppliers to deliver lower and lower prices”, calling that pressure “a key reason why you see factories cutting corners”.
As long as that price pressure continues, more deadly fires are inevitable.
It would not cost brands and retailers much to make apparel factories safe and pay workers decently: labor costs are a small percentage of the final retail price of their garments. Any impact of safety reforms on prices paid by consumers would be modest.
But no one should expect any moral epiphanies in the boardrooms of leading apparel corporations. At a fire safety meeting last year in Bangladesh, Walmart and Gap dismissed the idea that they should pay higher prices to fund the renovation of dangerous factories. These companies will pay reasonable prices to factories and ensure worker safety only when they are convinced that early 20th-century working conditions are unacceptable to 21st-century customers.
One ray of hope is the decision of PVH Corporation, the owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, to make a series of binding fire safety commitments in an agreement signed this March (pdf) with Bangladeshi and international unions and labor rights organizations. The agreement requires PVH to pay prices to suppliers sufficient to make it possible for them to operate safely and to end business with any supplier that refuses to do so. The German retailer Tchibo has also signed on.
If the biggest retailers, like Walmart, Gap and H&M, would make the same binding commitments, then apparel workers in places like Bangladesh and Pakistan would not have to take their lives into their hands when they go to work.